by Hank Leukart
October 11, 2010

Hello, impassable waterfall

Hiking Windy Pass from Cantwell to Denali National Park’s Refuge Valley.

A backpack sits near the top of Windy Pass as a hiker makes his way up a steep incline.

A backpack sits near the top of Windy Pass as a hiker makes his way up a steep incline.

This is the second essay in a series about packrafting Denali's Sanctuary River. Read the first essay for the whole story.

D

ENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE, Alaska — While walking north toward Denali, my boss Mitch and I catch a glimpse of the prop bus used in lieu of Chris McCandless’s “Magic Bus” in the film Into the Wild. We pose in front of it for a photo, which seems like a fitting but ominous beginning to our packrafting adventure. (The real “Magic Bus,” sitting in a location that Into the Wild filmmakers considered too remote for production, requires a 52-mile round trip hike on the Stampede Trail just outside Denali to access it. Note that hikers have died as recently as last month trying to get there. Only expert backpackers with lots of Alaska hiking experience should attempt the trip.)

Mitch and I continue toward the easement past a homestead, when we run into the land’s owner. I brace myself for a spray of buckshot.

“Have a good hike!” he says cordially, as he points us in the right direction. I’m relieved as we continue for about four miles down the ATV trail, and I’m amazed by the ease of the trip so far. The sky is blue and clear, the scenery is fantastic, and most surprising of all, the hiking is easy. Mitch looks like he’s having a great time, and we chat about the beautiful weather and the pleasure of taking a couple days for ourselves away from work before returning to the “Lower 48.” At this rate, I realize, we might be able to get to the Sanctuary River’s headwaters in one day. I begin calling into question my memories of Denali as one of the most difficult and daunting places to hike on earth.

But, soon, we reach Windy Creek and the ATV trail into the Park ends. When we cross the creek, I “accept wet feet” and walk through the water in my boots, knowing that it’s nearly impossible to keep your feet dry in Denali. But I’m also respectful when Mitch announces that he wants to change into a pair of waders that he’s been carrying — I know that “accepting wet feet” is a mindset which requires a lot of Denali hiking experience to cultivate. Immediately after we cross, we find ourselves hiking through muddy, sticky marshes with underbrush reaching up to our shoulders. We look around us, knowing that grizzly bears could be hiding anywhere in the bushes. Yes, this is the Denali I remember, I think. We do our best to avoid slogging through sludge and dense thickets by walking along the Creek’s edge, which sometimes works. Usually it doesn’t. Occasionally, we find game trails — narrow trails created by wild animals — that make the going easier for short distances, but we’re averaging less than one mile per hour. When I look back at Mitch, he looks exhausted and unhappy, even though we’ve only hiked about five miles total.

“If it’s going to be like this, I think we should turn back,” he says, exasperated.

“Look, I understand that it’s difficult, but from what I read online, we’ll be bushwhacking for less than two miles until we get to the beginning of Windy Pass. Things will get easier,” I say, partly trying to convince myself. Thinking about my previous Denali hiking experience, I’m skeptical that the terrain actually will become easier, but I hate to give up.

Because it’s sunny and warm, I suggest that we try hiking in the water of Windy Creek for about a mile to avoid the thicket. This is an idea that my brother and I would have considered ludicrous during our October Denali trip, considering the cold and rainy days and freezing glacial water. But right now, in August, Mitch and I don’t think twice. We find the Creek water deep enough that it’s still slow going, but it’s faster than bushwhacking. Soon enough, the underbrush subsides and we step out of the water to hike over dry riverbeds as we head into Windy Pass.

We celebrate our escape from the Windy Creek’s scrub by collapsing in a meadow on the way into the Pass and eating tortillas spread with blackberry jam and maple-almond butter. I’m tired enough after eight miles and a belly filled with jam to camp for the night, but Mitch surprises me by insisting that we continue into the Pass until we reach the 11-mile mark. When we do, we’re both exhausted. After we set up our camp, we eat dinner, almost too tired to talk, and Mitch falls asleep immediately afterward. I hide our food in a bear box under some underbrush and then fall asleep too.

The next day, after breakfast burritos and soothing mint tea, we find ourselves bushwhacking again through a dense meadow on the way up Windy Pass. It’s difficult travel, but as we get farther up the pass, the brush subsides, which we trade for steepness. Near the top of the Pass, I can barely breathe — my pulse is racing and I’m gasping for air due to the intense exertion of hiking up the Pass with a full backpack. I look at my GPS device and see that I’ve just climbed up 550 feet in only a third of a mile. I look down at Mitch far below and see that he’s still at the bottom, wheezing his way up the incline. It takes him over an hour to traverse the third of a mile to my position, and when we meet, he looks like he’s ready to kill me. We’re moving much slower than we anticipated, and only twelve hours remain before our flight from Anchorage back to Los Angeles leaves the gate. I begin to feel guilty and selfish for dragging him on an adventure longer and more difficult than I originally advertised. But we press on, and, happily, the hiking becomes easier as we head down the pass into Refuge Valley. We’re traveling over two miles per hour for the first time since the easy ATV trail at the beginning, and I’m relieved to think we’ll have a comparatively easy hike to the River. But, suddenly, the canyon walls flanking our path narrow, and we see a sheer, 100-foot waterfall, directly in front of us, blocking our path.

“Is this on the map?!” Mitch asks, giving me an exasperated look. I look at my printed map and GPS device carefully, but, somehow, the waterfall’s height is just short of the elevation required to show a revealing topo line.

“How are we going to get past this?! And even if we do, how do we know we won’t hit another one?” Mitch demands. Desperate to answer his questions, I spend a half hour climbing up a precarious cliff in an attempt to find a way around the waterfall, and I discover a rock chute which looks like it might lead safely to the bottom. But, I can’t see the entire length of the chute, and, for all I know, it drops adventurous passengers into a spike- and snake-filled pit. It doesn’t look safe. Then, Mitch takes another half hour to hike up a steep cliff on the side of the canyon opposite my position. When he reaches the top, he yells that he thinks we can follow a mountain ridge over and past the waterfall, which will eventually lead us back to the bank of Windy Creek. After looking at his suggested route, I agree with him and drag myself to the top of the ridge.

We soldier on, past the waterfall, across five more miles of arctic tundra covered in hummocks — which feels like hiking across fields of basketballs. I originally estimated the hiking distance from Cantwell to the Sanctuary headwaters to be about seventeen miles using trip planning software, but now, my GPS reveals that we’ve hiked almost twenty miles.

“This is ridiculous,” Mitch complains. “Ridiculous!” He’s had enough. But I keep hiking, trying not to look back at Mitch, desperate to get him to the Sanctuary River headwaters. I feel sure that once we’re there, we’ll be able to relax, drop our rafts into the river, and float leisurely back to the Park road.

Finally, three hours later than expected, we spot the rocky bank of the Sanctuary River. We pull our packrafts out of our packs, and I begin inflating mine on the shore. Mitch’s raft stays limp.

“Uh oh,” Mitch yells, frustrated. “My raft won’t inflate!”

We’re in the middle of the Denali wilderness, 20 miles from Cantwell and 16 miles from the Park road. Silently, we both realize simultaneously that if we can’t make it out by packraft, our only other option is to hike for two more days. In six hours, our redeye flight leaves to take us to work the next morning. There’s no way we’ll make it, packrafts or not.

This is it, I think. Even if we make it out of here, my boss is going to fire me.

Read the last essay in this series about packrafting the Sanctuary River in Denali National Park, in which Mitch and I discover that hitchhiking on a highway at night is not easy.

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The prop bus used in lieu of the “Magic Bus” in Into the Wild sits near Cantwell, Alaska.

The prop bus used in lieu of the “Magic Bus” in Into the Wild sits near Cantwell, Alaska.

Mitch slogs through underbrush near Windy Creek.

Mitch slogs through underbrush near Windy Creek.

Shed moose antlers sit in muddy water near Windy Creek.

Shed moose antlers sit in muddy water near Windy Creek.

An impassable waterfall blocks hikers following Windy Creek’s banks.

An impassable waterfall blocks hikers following Windy Creek’s banks.

Mitch hikes below mountain peaks into Refuge Valley.

Mitch hikes below mountain peaks into Refuge Valley.

How to Packraft Denali’s Sanctuary River

  • OVERVIEW: The headwaters of the Sanctuary River are located in Denali National Park and Preserve, about 16 miles south of mile 22.5 of Denali’s Park Road. Rafting the Sanctuary River is a good packrafting trip for beginning packrafters, but hiking across the trail-less, rugged terrain of Denali National Park is difficult and daunting. Only backpackers experienced with trail-less navigation, bushwhacking, and hiking in grizzly bear, moose, and mountain lion country should attempt this trip.
  • LOGISTICS: The entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve can be reached by driving five hours north from Anchorage by following the AK-1 (New Seward Highway) to Wasilla and then continuing north on AK-3 (George Parks Highway) to the Park entrance. Anyone camping overnight in Denali is required to stop at the Park’s Wilderness Access Center, located just inside the Park entrance, to create a trip plan, watch the Denali wildlife and river safety video, and get a Backcountry Permit. Denali’s quota system allows only a limited number of backpackers to camp in a given unit (area of the park) on a given night.
  • CANTWELL TO SANCTUARY HEADWATERS ROUTE: To reach the Sanctuary headwaters, drive 30 miles south from the Denali Park entrance to Cantwell, Alaska, turn right on AK-8 (Denali Highway), and after about 1.7 miles, turn right into the Cantwell Lodge parking lot. (You may want to make sure that the Lodge manager is aware of your car in his parking lot, and leave a note on your car’s dashboard with emergency contact information and the date of your expected return.) Begin hiking north across the nearby railroad tracks toward the power lines, up the road (yes, the one with the “Blue Home B&B” and “DEAD END, PRIVATE” signs). Upon reaching the end of the road, if you hike directly east along the power lines, you will be able to visit the prop bus used as a stand-in for Chris McCandless’s “Magic Bus” in the movie Into the Wild. After visiting the bus and returning to the road, continue walking north, on a muddy ATV trail leading into Denali National Park, on an easement leading through private property. The National Park has clearly marked the easement with bright orange, tall easement markers. On our hike, we met the private property owner, who was cordial and helpfully directed us in the right direction. The ATV trail allows for very easy hiking into the park for about four miles until reaching Windy Creek. Bushwhack for about three miles west along Windy Creek (this can be challenging, and you may want to walk in the Creek if it’s warm enough) and then continue following the Creek northwest up and over Windy Pass. If you plan on spending the night, keep in mind that there are many beautiful and flat places to camp high in the Pass, so hold out until you find a great spot. As you descend into Refuge Valley from Windy Pass, stay alert for an impassable waterfall about halfway down the Pass. Do not attempt to walk over this cliff — it is nearly 100 feet high. Instead, walk up the hill north of the cliff, then walk west and follow the Creek from the cliffs above. After you’ve passed the waterfall, there are many outcrops low enough to allow you to return to Windy Creek. You can then follow the Creek to the headwaters of the Sanctuary.
  • SABLE PASS TO SANCTUARY HEADWATERS ROUTE: To reach the Sanctuary headwaters, board the Denali Park Shuttle at the Wilderness Access Center and tell the driver you want to disembark at Sable Pass. Then, hike down the Teklanika River, up the Calico Creek drainage, over the pass, and then down into Refuge Valley where the Sanctuary River headwaters are located. The pass is very steep and may require you to crawl for a short distance. Take extra care when climbing down across loose scree.
  • PACKRAFTING TO THE PARK ROAD: The rafting distance from the Sanctuary headwaters to the Park road is 16.4 miles. Keep watch for the road after you have rafted about 16 miles (which will take between three and four hours). Once at the road, Park shuttles will pass approximately every half hour until 10 PM, depending on time of day and time of year. (Confirm the current schedule before you leave.) After the shuttle returns you to the Park entrance, you can walk to your car or hitchhike back to Cantwell if you started there.
  • PACKRAFTING TIPS: Packrafts tend to be stable, forgiving crafts that flow over waves easily and are resilient when bouncing off sharp rocks. Packrafts are most likely to tip backwards, so make sure to learn forward in rough water. Hypothermia is a risk; it’s easy to get very cold while rafting in Alaska because glacier water is near freezing, you expend less energy than you do while hiking, and the boats have flimsy spray skirts. Packrafts position you almost directly on the water’s surface, so you will get wet. Wear warm, synthetic clothing, and put on more layers than you would for hiking. Be sure to bring a patch kit (duct tape, Aquaseal) in case a valve leaks or you manage to punch a hole in the raft — otherwise, you could end up with an unexpected, long hike home.
  • ROUTE: View our route and download the Without Baggage Packrafting Sanctuary River GPS track in GPX or KML format.